Monthly Archives: January 2009
Today, I have undertaken my last ministerial duties before I start that sabbatical I keep talking about. I attended a meeting this morning of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on which I sit as the official Methodist representative.
Before our mercifully brief AGM, we had an hour and a half trailing a major conference to be held on 4th April at Chelmsford Cathedral, where there will be various workshops on the healing ministry in various forms. A couple of our guest speakers were present to give us a flavour of their input on the day. One was my friend Anthony Rose, author of ‘Stranger On The Shore‘, an account of his struggle with emotional healing. The other was Paul Harcourt, vicar of All Saints Woodford Wells.
Paul is bringing a team to the conference to talk about their extensive practice of offering the healing ministry with the laying on of hands. His brief talk this morning was thoughtful. He talked about how many of us set off into something like the healing ministry with great enthusiasm and passion, but then disappointments set in. We have to be realistic about brokenness and the incompleteness of God’s kingdom, he said, referring not least to his own autistic son. But, he said, how many of us let the disappointments shape everything? They provide necessary colour and shade, and they qualify unremitting triumphalism. But should they be the determining factor in our understanding or interpretation?
And I just had a brief thought that the experience of disappointment doesn’t just affect an area like the healing ministry. Disappointments in all sorts of areas need handling carefully. We need them to inform a proper realism, but when they quench faith and we rewrite faith on a basis that we should expect little or nothing at all, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Does this resonate with you? Are there aspects of life and faith where disappointment has distorted faith instead of informing it? What do you think?
Two days, two sad deaths. Yesterday, John Martyn. Today, Bill Frindall. The man who combined two of my favourite things in life: cricket and Maths.The only sport I was ever any good at, plus my best subject at school. Today, Frindall has succumbed to Legionnaire’s Disease at the age of sixty-nine.
Cricket is a statistician’s dream, and Bearders elevated it to new heights. Test Match commentaries on the radio punctuated every few minutes by an announcement that this was a record sixth wicket partnership for India against England at Trent Bridge, superseding the previous record, which was held by X and Y in the year whenever.
Frindall’s death made me particularly remember a church member in my last circuit. I always knew she was a mad-keen cricket scorer. Occasionally she let slip about trips around the world following the World Cup and having conversations with the likes of Benaud and others. But then in 2003, Cathy Rawson made history: she was the first woman to score a top international cricket match in this country. A bit different from her day job as a practice nurse. I wonder how Cathy feels about Bearders. He was the man who made scoring exciting, not tedious.
Driving back from an away day today, I tuned into BBC London 94.9 and found Danny Baker was playing non-stop John Martyn. It was a shock to discover the great man had died this morning. Well, not such a shock, given Martyn’s history of substance abuse.
And yes, his lifestyle was far removed from my Christian ethic. A brawling boozer. (How did he relate that to the Buddhism of his later years?) Yet one who had a way with a tender song. He hardly ever charted, but surely millions know the wonderful May You Never:
Maybe the beautiful Head And Heart:
Then, Solid Air, the song he associated with his late friend Nick Drake:
Or the love found and lost of Bless The Weather:
The echoplex masterpieces such as Glistening Glyndebourne:
An album like Grace And Danger was a divorce album to rank with Marvin Gaye‘s Here, My Dear. One World fused dub way before trip-hop was apparently invented in Bristol. Later, tracks like Sunshine’s Better
would cross over into dance circles, although he was surely the godfather of chillout. (I remember Robert Elms playing that one to death.) That, along with his appearance on the Sister Bliss track Deliver Me:
There are several other tracks where it was difficult to track down video clips – Lonely Love or John Wayne from Piece By Piece, for example. I associate the former with a girl I rather liked. The feelings weren’t reciprocated!
There’s no theology in this, no punch line, just a deep sadness and sense of loss that someone whose music has given me great pleasure over thirty-five years is gone at the age of sixty.
Microsoft, actually. (Well, they have recently announced 5000 redundancies.) Office Live Workspace is by no means the first online collaborative tool – Google, Zoho and others beat them to it ages ago. But this one uses full-blown MS applications, which people are used to (whether you like them or not, familiarity counts for something). We’re starting to use it in my circuit for the ‘Plan’. I’ve just set up an online diary for a group of evangelical churches who want to make sure that when they organise an event, another church isn’t already doing something the same day. It’s not public on the web, but only accessible to those whom you invite to view and/or edit it.
Sunday night. I took off my suit and clerical shirt. No robes, cassocks, preaching tabs or anything like that for me. And definitely no cassock-alb – technically known in the congregation as ‘that white thing your predecessor wore’. A clerical shirt and collar is hard enough for me to cope with sometimes. As an Anglican friend once said of himself and me, ‘Not so much low church, more like subterranean.’ I changed into casual clothes, and thought, ‘I won’t need that suit or those shirts until 10th May now.’
It wasn’t a morbid thought along the lines of ‘Mama, please take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore’, as Bob Dylan sang at the beginning of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Instead, it was a case that I had taken my last Sunday service before my much-anticipated sabbatical, which starts next Sunday. I shall have to put my mind into proleptic mode this week to prepare worship for 10th May. I shall also have a number of important appointments this week, not least including a Church Council and an away day for the Circuit Leadership Team. But unless a crisis occurs, the suit, clerical shirts and collars are sharing fellowship with the mothballs for the immediate future.
Realising I would now be wearing civvies for quite a while, I had another thought: ‘Great. I can be myself now.’ When I dress as a minister, I am putting myself in a rôle. That’s both bad and good.
It’s bad in this sense. If I have to put myself in rôle, like an actor putting on a costume ready for a performance, then I wonder whether something dishonest is going on here. This is not the real me, I’m not meant to be an actor portraying a different character. Ministry can only come out of who I am in Christ. Who is this guy in the clerical collar? It doesn’t look or feel like me.
But it’s also good, and the reason it’s good is like the obverse face of what I’ve just described in saying it’s bad. There are times when, to fulfil my calling, I have to play a rôle. I don’t mean that I’m pretending in the sense of trying to deceive anybody. I mean that it gets me into the rôle God has called me to take.
And that’s important for me, because – as anyone who knows me reasonably well will be aware – I frequently feel a dichotomy between who I am as a person and the fact of my calling to the ministry. I resisted the call to the ministry for ages, thinking I didn’t have it in my sensitive personality to cope with people’s deep problems. I still find that, like the majority of ministers in the historic denominations, I’m an introvert, and many congregations want an extravert. The latter is an issue I’m going to spend some of the sabbatical exploring.
I don’t like dressing differently from the rest of the church. Theologically, I have always recoiled from it. I find it undermines the priesthood of all believers and disempowers people when that doctrine and the related one of the Body of Christ calls all disciples to make a contribution, and not to honour the more obvious ones above the others. For the same reason, my stocks of calling cards have never had the word ‘Reverend’ or any abbreviation of it printed on them. They say I’m a Methodist minister, but titles give me discomfort, because it’s another dubious sign of status and superiority.
Personally, I dislike it, too. I’m just a guy who doesn’t like dressing up. Until recently, our four-year-old son Mark would always protest at having to dress up for fancy dress parties. ‘Can I wear ordinary clothes?’ he would ask. (Having said that, he’s starting to change.) But that’s me: ordinary clothes. I even resisted a suit for years. Looking smart, complete with a tie to strangle me, was something I associated with unhappy memories of school. Why repeat that? It took a long time to see I’d developed a self-esteem issue, and that scruffy appearance was an outward sign of feeling pretty scruffy inside. Feeling better about myself smartened up my appearance more than any harshly applied rules. There’s a lesson there, you know. I even began to enjoy buying suits and building a collection of striking ties. It dawned on me what I needed to do: buy shirts with collars half an inch bigger than I really needed. Then I could be both smart and comfortable. That was a winning combination I never expected after school uniform days.
But despite my theological objections and personal reservations, I still wear formal minister’s attire for formal occasions. Sometimes I admit it’s just to keep the peace. Some older, more traditional folk just wouldn’t understand my message if I didn’t wear it to take services, and especially not ones particularly associated with the ministry, such as the sacraments, weddings or funerals.
At other times, though, wearing the gear is a reminder to myself that yes, this is my calling, despite my periodic bouts of incredulity at that thought. ‘What am I doing as a minister? Should I continue? Wasn’t I right all those years ago to think I wasn’t suited?’ – these are thoughts that orbit my brain and occasionally land for a while. And that’s when I need reminders.
The reminders can come in many forms. At one especially dark time when I felt very close to jacking it all in, Debbie said to me, ‘What about all those ways in which you knew God had called you? If you quit, you’re denying all of them.’ I knew she was right. When I was exploring what the call of God on my life was, I had written down all the little hints of what it might be and the evidence why I thought God was saying that – Bible verses, striking passages from books, comments by friends, and so on.
That kind of reminder works well for me. They are like pieces of data that can be assembled to make a rational case. But visual reminders serve well, too. They work well for me because they are out of the ordinary in terms of the way my brain usually works. I like logic, theory and principles. Much as I can enjoy photography, you don’t see many photos on this blog. It tends to be words (apart from some video clips from time to time). The visual comes from outside my normal experiences of validation.
In using something that’s outside my conventional learning style, God creeps up on me. In speaking through something about which I have theological and personal qualms, God catches me unawares.
But no, I’m not planning to wear it at all during the sabbatical. Because first and foremost, before I put any sense of identity and self-worth in my calling to be a minister, I’m going to enjoy my primary calling.
And that’s the primary calling of all Christians: to be a child of God.
On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.
And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verses 14-15)
At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.
Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.
Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.
When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)
Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.
Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.
Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God.
You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.
Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?
And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.
Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Verse 17)
Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.
I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.
For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way.
Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.
That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.
It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.
So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?
I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.
I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.
I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News.
In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?
So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?
… Morley Retreat House is to close. (Via Church Times.) I have enjoyed several small conferences there, notably with the now-defunct Evangelical Forum for Theology. But apparently they can’t keep up in the current economic circumstances when people demand en suite facilities. Because, obviously, retreats are meant to be taken in considerable comfort. Mind you, the food was always good …
Everybody else, not least my blogging friend PamBG, is posting this video from Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern, so why not me as well? It reminds me of the story I’ve told regarding a friend who trained for the ministry. He found a book of cartoons about the practice of passing The Peace at Holy Communion. It was entitled, ‘No Thank You, I’m C Of E’.